Sunday, February 15, 2015

Funny Girl: Chasing Laughter & Fame

Nick Hornby is a fantastic and funny author who dabbles in a variety of forms. Whether it's his football memoir, Fever Pitch, that first brought him to the world's attention, or his wonderful novels like About a Boy and High Fidelity, or his collections of essays and literary reviews for the Believer, the man can write about anything. Lately, however, I've noticed his impeccable screenwriting, with the Oscar-nominated screenplay for An Education and the gorgeous script for Wild. While his previous literary efforts were focused on men and their obsessions, his screenplays have centered on women and told their stories empathetically and emphatically. So it comes as no surprise that his latest novel, Funny Girl, is about yet another marvelous woman, who is coming-of-age in 1960s Britain and trying to reconcile her ambitions and reality.

The novel tells the story of Barbara Parker, a beautiful girl from Blackpool who idolizes Lucille Ball. She watches I Love Lucy every Sunday, and her dream is to run off to London, become a comic actress, and make the world take notice. These are alien ambitions to her working-class father and aunt (her mother isn't in the picture, having run off with another man when Barbara was younger), but their lack of encouragement cannot dampen Barbara's enthusiasm. By the second chapter, she has set off for London with stars in her eyes.

What follows is a rather beautiful story about lucky chances, fateful choices, and the difference between the fantasy of achieving your dreams and the reality once you achieve them. Barbara changes her name to Sophie Straw and becomes part of an iconic BBC series; along the way, she is forced to come to terms with her working-class background, evaluate her intelligence alongside her Oxbridge-educated colleagues, and determine whether or not she is OK with the sacrifices she is making to become an adored and famous actress. Hornby also dissects Barbara's colleagues, all men with varied personalities and problems, who are in love with Barbara in different ways and become her support system in this incredibly strange and unique environment. Because of her looks and ferocious ambition, Barbara doesn't have any female friends, so it's her interactions with these men that must keep her going in London and sustain her as she builds up her career.

Funny Girl is a very warm and real look at a complicated woman and her complicated friends. Set in the 1960s with multiple historical references and photographs from the period, it sometimes feels like a biography instead of a novel, and Hornby expertly recreates this world of BBC light entertainment and the political messages woven into the sitcom landscape. Thanks to his screenplay expertise, the dialog in this book is unlike anything I've read before - the interactions between characters crackle with wit and verve, and there are long conversations that get so intense and funny that I felt like I was watching them onscreen instead of reading them on the page. It is moving, absorbing, wise, and uplifting.

Hornby continues to be a writer I admire, who keenly observes the world around him and tells funny and heartbreaking stories about flawed, genuine people. The following passage from the novel perhaps summarizes everything we need to know about him and his literary motivations:

Years later, Tony would discover that writers never felt they belonged anywhere. 
That was one of the reasons they became writers. 

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